By any measure, there is a need for strong girls in the world. Meeting this need requires guidance from one generation to the next. Arising from humble beginnings as a running and self-empowerment program for thirteen elementary-aged girls in 1996, Girls on the Run has exploded into an international effort involving over 130,000 girls and 55,000 volunteers across over 200 cities. Girls meet twice weekly for 10 to 12 weeks to train for a 5k run and talk about topics ranging from what positive self-image means to how to deal with bullying.
But despite the magnitude of Girls on the Run International, at the local level it all comes down to the individuals who make it happen: volunteer coaches.
One such volunteer is Meredith Rhodes Carson, Girls on the Run coach for a team at Thoreau Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin. Carson has a tremendous depth and range of experience: PhD-level consulting in explorative geology, professional health coaching for brides-to-be, and mother of two active young children.
Focal Flame Photography writer and co-owner Robyn Perrin recently followed up with Carson about some of her experiences as a Girls on the Run coach.
Robyn Perrin / Focal Flame Photography: For those who aren't familiar with the Girls on the Run (GOTR) program, what's involved in a typical practice?
Meredith Rhodes Carson: GOTR practice is divided into several parts; a brief introduction where we discuss the main topic of the lesson (i.e., healthy eating), a getting on board/warm-up where we explore the topic a bit deeper and get the girls moving by playing a short game (i.e., softball, where they are 'pitched' questions about healthy eating), a quick stretch and strengthening routine, and then the actual workout which involves running/walking laps around the practice area. To wrap up, the girls recognize each other with 'energy awards' and we end with our GOTR cheer.
FFP: What inspired you to become a GOTR coach?
Carson: There are a couple of things that inspired me to become a GOTR coach. When I was growing up, I had some serious issues with self-esteem. I remember going through a funk (which I would call depression today) in middle school; I was bullied on the school bus, I had a hard time finding real friends, and my mom was facing her own demons at the time. Fast forward to today: I'm raising a 9-year-old daughter and I desperately want to make sure she has the tools to deal with the stressors of growing up and the confidence to know that she is awesome and that no one should convince her otherwise. I also wanted to find a way to volunteer in my community - in a way that would help me to grow. Coaching GOTR has been a great learning experience for me.
FFP: What has been the most rewarding aspect of coaching?
Carson: I think that the most rewarding aspect of coaching has been to see the girls change over the course of 10 weeks. I see leaders emerging, I see confidence being gained, I see compassion, I see friends choosing to be in situations that make them happy, I see that many of the girls are learning great things in school and bringing those gifts out to share.
FFP: Has anything about being a GOTR coach been surprising or unexpected?
Carson: I am surprised by how much the girls transport me back to my youth. Some of the conversations that we've had really hit home. Conversations around body image and relationships and missing friends who have moved away... The other coaches and I have been moved to tears after practice remembering what it was like to be in their shoes.
FFP: How has the staff at GOTR-Dane County supported your efforts?
Carson: The staff at GOTR - Dane County are awesome! They have been very supportive, incredibly so. They held new coaches training and first aid sessions to start the season off. They let me sneak another girl onto the team in the early weeks (would have been so hard to turn her away), they make lesson planning a breeze by sending out weekly reminders about what is coming up, they've provided all of the materials for the lessons, and most of all, they've provided individual support to the girls when needed. We were able to provide a great new pair of running shoes to one of the girls on the team. GOTR support is amazing. They are really committed to making this program successful.
FFP: For those considering coaching a GOTR or Girls On Track team in their community, what advice would you share?
Carson: If you are on the edge about becoming a GOTR coach, I would offer this advice. You might approach GOTR coaching as a way for you to grow personally, not with the idea that you don't have what it takes to coach, or that you have nothing to teach the girls, or that you don't know how to run (because it's not a running program). My default state throughout my adult life has been to be sort of scheduled, to play by the book, to plan and maybe to over-plan. Coaching GOTR has enabled me to let loose, to let things happen and unfold, to throw the book away when good things are happening, and to appreciate how each lesson is played out.
While the lessons are literally written out for you, the spontaneity of practice is rewarding. Not to mention that the girls really do value the program... they know me now... It's great to be hugged in the hallways at school. I'll forever be Coach Myrtle.
FFP: How has GOTR influenced the rest of your family?
Carson: I have a jealous little guy at home, who would really like to be a Boy on the Run.
FFP: What do you want the community to know about GOTR?
Carson: I found out about GOTR through a friend - who happens to be a former GOTR coach. We were discussing how to raise a confident daughter (and I really didn't know, as I lost that confidence when I was growing up). My friend said to me, "She needs to do Girls on the Run." She was right. TheGOTR program is designed to give our girls the tools to be positive, to treat themselves well, to understand their emotions, to practice gratitude, to value what's really important, to cooperate, to stand up to peer pressure and bullying, to understand how harmful gossip is, to choose friends that lift you up, and to work together to support their community.
Please join Girls on the Run Dane County for the 2nd Annual Spring 5K on Saturday, June 8 at McKee Farms Park in Fitchburg, WI.